But as much as bush medicine and natural health and beauty remedies played an important role in the Caribbean’s history, that same history has also shaped and conditioned beauty ideals. The historical inevitabilities of slavery and colonialism in particular have left their indelible mark on the region, so that today, the most coveted facet of beauty is, ironically, the least attainable: light skin.
“The color and the fear of being darker than you are is something that I am sad to say I grew up with, and it is still a top concern in the Caribbean, but not so much from a health angle,” says Patrice Yursik, aka Afrobella, a widely known blogger (she’s on Ebony’s Power 100 list, alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Oprah and the Obamas) who celebrates the natural beauty of black women. “I mean, it’s never presented as ‘you should stay out of the sun because you may get skin cancer,’ but ‘because you will get darker,’ so it’s all about skin bleaching instead of sunscreen.”
Indeed, the widespread usage of skin whitening creams is a huge problem on many islands, particularly Jamaica, where skin bleaching has reached such alarming levels that even the poor are spending fortunes they don’t have on commercial products that claim to lighten the skin, some of which may be loaded with noxious chemicals.
That aside, the prolonged usage of commercial skin lighteners and whitening creams is in and of itself dangerous and extremely detrimental to the skin in the long run, says Cheryl Bowles, a former chief chemist for Nestle and the founder of the Cher-Mere line of natural skincare and beauty. Dark skin produces melanin and this makes it naturally prone to dark spots and hyperpigmentation, she says, both of which become exacerbated by the usage of bleaching creams, particularly in a hot and sunny climate.
Like Yap-McKay, Bowles is also looking to bring more women and men in the Caribbean full circle back to where things began, by focusing her line of skincare products and soaps on the idea of overall well-being. Bowles, who now runs spas in her native Trinidad & Tobago and in Barbados, and who is looking to open outlets in Canada and the United States, is bringing her scientific knowledge and experience back home and works closely with the University of the West Indies to study the Caribbean’s many natural plants and flowers to lend scientific backing to traditional beliefs in their properties.
Take sorrel, for instance. The bright red flower is made into a juice that’s drunk at Christmas time throughout the Caribbean, “but our studies have shown us that it is packed with antioxidants and with vitamin C and E that are vital for good skin, so even if our grandmothers did not have the scientific rationale, they knew from intuition and a sense of nature,” she says. Bowles is also studying the properties of bois-bande, a tree species from St. Lucia whose bark was traditionally consumed for its aphrodisiacal properties, but also has very strong astringent properties (she’s integrated it into a line of aftershaves for men); and licorice, which contains glabridin, an element that suppresses the formation of melanin and therefore lends itself well to the skin lightening many Caribbean women desire.
Thanks to product lines like Cher-Mere, a new generation in the Caribbean is slowly but surely coming back to their roots, Yursik says. But the benefits of the herbs and plants of the region are universal, since the power of nature always transcends boundaries.